George Murphy was riding high in the mid-1960s. He owned a string of GM dealerships in Hawaii and California. He was named Hawaii’s Businessman of the Year in 1965. Time magazine profiled him less than a year later. And he’d just pocketed $15 million from turning around Honolulu Iron Works. The obvious next step for him then was to buy Studebaker just before it quit building cars.
To Murphy, it made perfect sense. The Saskatchewan native had been selling cars since he joined his father’s Chevrolet dealership in 1921. He later established his own Oldsmobile dealership in Honolulu in 1938, leveraging the success of that to buy into Aloha Chevrolet in 1940. His modus operandi, as he explained to the Wall Street Journal in 1940, consisted of buying “rundown, poor management companies” then turning them around, though during World War II he also found a successful scheme buying trucks in bulk then turning around and selling the trucks to the U.S. and Allied governments right when they needed trucks the most. Under his ownership, Aloha expanded by selling GM vehicles—including Holdens—all around the Pacific Rim, eventually becoming the largest General Motors dealership in the world.
Studebaker’s automotive division, meanwhile, had been in freefall. In 1963 alone, it lost more than $25 million, prompting the company—which had already started to diversify its holdings years prior—to close the South Bend, Indiana, plant and move production to Hamilton, Ontario. Murphy sensed an opportunity with Studebaker, so in February of 1966, after selling Honolulu Iron Works, he approached Studebaker chairman Randolph Guthrie with an offer to buy 500,000 shares of Studebaker stock—more than a sixth of the outstanding shares of common stock—at $30 per share, above market price. The offer came out of left field, according to a lawsuit between Studebaker and Allied Products, a Studebaker supplier that also entered in negotiations to buy the company immediately after Murphy’s offer. Studebaker’s board of directors appeared in favor of Murphy’s offer but ultimately left the decision up to the stockholders, who, by all indications, let the offer die on the vine. Guthrie, in turn, rejected Allied’s offer, and a month later Studebaker shut down the Hamilton assembly line, bringing an end to the company’s car making efforts
Three-on-the-tree is one of my favorite setups to drive. When I saw the clutch pedal and column shifter in this 1951 Champion, I grinned. You see, I had a ’50 Champion with the same arrangement, and I drove it all over Michigan’s Lower Peninsula back in 2015.
Well, not exactly the same arrangement. For one thing, although Mark Klinger’s bullet-nose is generally similar to a ’50, the ’51 cars were pretty heavily reworked right from the factory. More importantly, this one is hiding a V-8 surprise.
“Foul!” some purists will cry. “A hot rod in the pages of Hemmings Classic Car!” But consider that even the Studebaker faithful love this one, which we discovered back in late August, at a regional Studebaker Drivers’ Club gathering in Rutland, Vermont, just an hour or so north of our Bennington home offices. Lucky us, because the car had been driven the four hours from Auburn, Maine, where Mark and wife Lynn run the Sleepy Time Motel, which itself looks straight out of a 1950s road trip.
A big factor in the acceptance of Mark’s car is the Studebaker V-8 used in the conversion. It’s a 1964-vintage 289-cu.in. version, which would have been rated at 210 or 225 horsepower, depending on whether it was topped with a two- or four-barrel carburetor. It has a four-barrel now. At first blush, it seems like it would be a pretty straightforward swap, as the Commander used an earlier version of the engine in the same chassis, but the original builder, an engineer, went above and beyond the factory in making the conversion as dialed in as it could be.
Even barring an engineering background, Studebaker owners from the beginning of the V-8 era have a lot of options to make their cars road ready just by combing through the factory parts bins. The new-for-’51 front suspension design, for example, was essentially the same as that used under the final Studebaker Larks in 1966. The design remained in use in the sporty fiberglass GT, the Avanti, up through 1985.
Thanks to that, rebuild parts for the 1951 chassis, along with brake and handling upgrades, remain remarkably accessible thanks to a large cache of Studebaker NOS items built at South Bend in the days before its 1964 closure. It was the foundation and remains the core of the Studebaker aftermarket. It also helps that Studebaker used the same Carter carburetors, Borg-Warner manual transmissions, and Dana 44 axles as much of the rest of the industry
All of that is to say we didn’t even realize we were looking at a non-stock Studebaker at first. Sure, the blue hue seems a bit brighter than the Maui or Aero Blues of 1951, but you could write that off as variations in modern paint mixes and the bright sun. That’s a 1952 steering wheel, but unless you’re already an expert on 1947-’52 Studebakers, that’s not obvious. It’s got bias-ply whitewalls and full wheelcovers, for Pete’s sake. And, as hinted above, there’s little external difference between a Champion and Commander, which can make them difficult to tell apart.
The big clue ends up being the body style. It turns out Studebaker didn’t build a Commander Business Coupe in 1951 (some records suggest they built only one —but this isn’t it). That three-passenger light-weight was exclusive to the Champion line with its 85-hp, 170-cu.in. flathead six, barring would-be scorchers from the potentially most potent power-to-weight combination. If you wanted a Business Coupe with the brand-new 120-hp, 233-cu.in. OHV V-8, you’d have to build it yourself. Instead, the few buyers thinking that way just settled for the gorgeous five-passenger Starlight coupe with its wraparound rear window and 65-pound weight penalty.
A fellow named Dave Carter, then in California, now in South Carolina, originally put this car together back in 2005-’06. Mark bought it this way, back in April of 2021, after he found it for sale in Tempe, Arizona. Luckily, Mark is from that area originally, and his brother (who owns a 1952 Starlight) was willing to go check it out for him. The modified ’51 appealed to Mark for the same reasons it appealed to us: Aside from some non-stock details, it feels just like something Studebaker could have, should have, and maybe would have (had anybody asked) built back in 1951. Right down to the column shifter.
Lightweight body aside, Mark’s car ups the ante with what was originally the 225-hp, 289-cu.in. engine in a 1962 Hawk. The Hawk was Studebaker’s creative but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep its 1953-vintage bodies relevant as a sporty, full-size car into the ’60s. This engine has been bored over 0.080-inch, bringing its displacement to over 302 cu.in., but “as far as I know,” Mark says, “it’s otherwise stock.” The engine’s current horsepower is unknown, but presumably a skosh higher than the original 225, which was already more than double that of a ’51 Commander engine. Nevertheless, the 289 is very mildly built, with road manners suited to interstate driving rather than drag racing.
In fact, Mark observed that the current 3.31 final drive ratio (in a ’64 Hawk Dana 44 with relocated spring perches) don’t necessarily play well with the Borg-Warner R10 overdrive (pirated, along with its siamesed T86 three-speed, from a 1959 Studebaker Lark) and somewhat hamper acceleration from a dead stop. Overdrive cars in the era of 55-mph roads usually came with a ratio in the 4.10s or deeper, suggesting something around 3.90:1 would be suitable today in the flyweight coupe. With the 0.70:1 gearing in the overdrive, the current 3.31s cruise along like a set of 2.32s, while 3.90s would act like 2.73s.
None of this is to say that the Stude’s performance was in any way lackluster. Accelerating with traffic was no difficulty at all: with 3.90s it would probably outrun most of today’s milder commuter cars from stoplight to stoplight. Front discs, from a conversion kit supplied by Turner Brake in South Carolina, mean the car can stop just as well as it accelerates
A quick look through the photos in the listing for this 1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 for sale on Hemmings.com had us believing it was a fully restored car, but as we learned from the description, it remains largely original with a few items updated or rebuilt here and there. That’s rather remarkable, but understandable, given how treasured Avantis – supercharged Avantis, particularly – have been since new. We imagine this was a fair-weather car – socked away in a dry place in the winters and regularly serviced every spring – and it appears ready to continue in that capacity for many years to come.From the seller’s description:
This 1963 Studebaker Avanti is very original to its date of manufacture. It is a supercharged R2 with 89,000 miles. Equipped with automatic trans, power steering, brakes, and windows. Seats and trim are as delivered, and carpet is updated in correct salt and pepper design. All instruments function but the clock is not connected. AM radio is functional. All lights work properly. Brakes serviced and duel master cylinder installed for upgraded safety. Supercharger recently overhauled by factory. All glass and rubber seals are in excellent condition. Torque boxes, (hog troughs) are in good condition. Tires are new and the correct size for 1963 introduction. Paint on a scale of 1 thru 10 is a strong 9.5 with zero cracks, nicks or blemishes. Finish has a high sheen/luster. Chrome is a 9.0. There is the typical Studebaker oil leak to report.
If there is a vehicle that built the American economy, it is arguably the pickup. Consider its versatility in basic light-duty form: Farmers could bring their humble harvest to market in the same design that enabled store owners to deliver goods to households in both the cities and suburbs with efficient ease. Everything from animal feed, to building supplies, to small appliances could be transported, and it didn’t take long for adventurous outdoorsmen to convert their coveted workhorse into a weekend camper with a clever aftermarket add-on. Its evolution continues today, serving family needs in more powerful and luxurious ways than once envisioned. Meanwhile, the more vintage steeds have become a hot commodity among old vehicle enthusiasts, so in our latest edition of This or That, we bring you four half-tons from the Sixties to ponder for your dream garage – all of which are currently available in the Hemmings classifieds.
Up first is a pickup that regular readers of our Hemmings Classic Car magazine may recognize: this 1961 Studebaker Champ Deluxe, which appeared in the May 2019 issue, as well as our 2020 Hemmings Vintage Trucks calendar. Studebaker’s half-ton Champ was introduced to the truck market in 1960, and while it may have appeared as an all-new light-duty hauler at first blush, the company’s lack of engineering funds meant that the outgoing model – the Scotsman – was, on the surface, given a new name with a facelift, courtesy of the Lark sedan. Aside from the cab’s front end, save for a four-bar grille versus a mesh design, the Lark’s instrument panel was carried forward to the Champ, too. Two upgrades highlighted our featured ’61 model year: The use of a 110-hp, 170-cu.in. six-cylinder engine in base trim, and the “Spaceside” cargo box. The latter was made possible thanks to old tooling obtained from Dodge, which accounted for the mismatched cab/cargo box body transition. According to the seller of this Champ:
his 1961 Studebaker Champ Deluxe pickup is a nicely restored example. If you are a fan of the Hemmings Vintage Trucks Calendar, it was used for the July 2020 page. The red paint has the vibrant look of a modern quality respray, so the sunlight shows off the well-done bodywork as the Lark-inspired front end flows into a muscular bed design. And speaking of the bed, the finish applied over the oak wood on the bed floor and removable side stakes has a gloss that rivals the paint. This has upgraded chrome on the bumpers, grille, and side trim. The wheels have classic Studebaker hubcaps, and the whitewalls coordinate with the body’s white pinstripe. It’s believed Studebaker produced less than 7,700 consumer pickups across the entire line in 1961. The exterior red returns inside. It’s now joined by a tasteful black on the seat, carpeting, and dash. The experience inside this pickup is truly authentic, right down to the large dual-spoke steering wheel that gives a clear view to the correct classic gauges. The AM radio still cranks out tunes and the heater works. Plus, this one has the rare sliding rear window option. The engine bay has an authentic 170 cubic-inch straight-six backed by a column-shifted three-speed manual transmission.
In every niche in the collector car world, there are people you stop and listen to, no matter the occasion. When it comes to Studebaker drag racing, that person is Ted Harbit, who’s been campaigning the cars from South Bend on dragstrips since the Fifties. We’ve covered Ted’s Flyin’ Tomato in the pages of Hemmings Muscle Machines and have caught him at the Pure Stock Drags over the years, but more recently Ted weighed in on Bob Palma’s recently highlighted column about the Studebaker V-8. So let’s stop and listen to Ted’s story, told from his own keyboard.
I’m 84 years old and have driven Studebakers since I got my license at 16. My first car was a ’50 Champion and being a very economical six it was not a “hot” car. My next car was a ’51 Commander with the first year Stude V8 and found it to be almost impossible to destroy. It was a convertible and I entered it in the first NHRA National Drag Race held in Indianapolis. The oil pressure was really low on it and since I was going to enter it in the NHRA Summer National Drags in Indy I wanted to overhaul it but when I tried to “blow” the engine, I could not. I run it until the valves floated in first and second many times but it just kept on running. The oil pressure was about 5 pounds at idle and only would go up to about 20 while driving it even up to about 5000+ rpms when the valves would start to float.
When I gave up trying to blow it up I tore it down and the rod bearings looked worn but not completely shot. The main bearings still looked decent. I think the cam bearings
I’ve always been enamored with Avanti interiors. That semi-wraparound dashboard with Stewart-Warner gauges galore had a perfect blend of sports car and hot rod that perfectly complemented Studebaker’s fiberglass-bodied performance car, a sort of analog—if not throwback—standby that remained with the Avanti long after others picked up the torch from Studebaker.
This 1963 Studebaker Avanti for sale on Hemmings.com, however, adds to that allure with plaid inserts all throughout the interior. Front seats, rear seats, and door cards, all in earth tones that remind one of the limited color options available in newspaper and magazine ads of that time. I’d have to ask my Studebaker and Avanti contacts if these are original, but even if they’re not, I don’t care. They remind me of the sleeping bag I had as a kid, and that’s all this car needs to speak to me. Does it have an engine? I guess so. Does it run and drive? Maybe. Does it have some sort of interesting history that warrants a call to the sellers to have them elaborate? I suppose. But these are all ancillary questions—I know everything I need to know about the car with just three interior photos.
Why did Studebaker go out of business? I have your book Studebaker 1946-1966, originally published as Studebaker: The Postwar Years.
I worked for the old company at the end in Hamilton, Ontario. Your book brought back memories of many old Studebaker hands. Stylists Bob Doehler and Bob Andrews were good friends about my age.
I am looking forward to the last chapter discussing how Studebaker went wrong, especially since I also have theories. It would fun to compare notes. I often quote from your book: “For many years, Raymond Loewy Associates would be the only thing standing between Studebaker and dull mediocrity.”
Like you I owned a 1962 Gran Turismo Hawk, a surprisingly impressive car. Drove it back and forth to Hamilton when we were working on the last 1966 production Studebakers. I put a ’53 Starliner decklid on it and ’54 Starliner wheel covers; I thought each addition was an improvement. —B.M.
I’m curious what you think of the compact sedan pictured here, and I’m especially interested if you’re a longtime Studebaker enthusiast. Why? Because this was almost the future of Studebaker cars worldwide. Presenting the almost 1966 Studebaker Bellet, designed by Isuzu— the car that really might have saved the company.
By 1964, Studebaker car production for the U.S. and Canada was centered in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1965, the president of Studebaker Canada, Gordon Grundy, was searching for an import car to supplement the Studebakers his dealers were selling (and, possibly, an import that could be assembled in Canada). Studebaker Canada was already involved with importing foreign cars via a deal with Volkswagen of Canada, which was paying a hefty duty on cars brought in from Germany. With the new Canada/U.S. Auto Pact agreement, Studebaker was allowed to import any foreign car, duty-free. So, Grundy made a deal to import 31,600 VWs at a duty-free savings of $165 per car. These were sold to VW Canada at $150 profit per car, pocketing a net profit of $4.74 million—while VW saved $474,000. It was strictly a paper transaction, and all perfectly legal.
Looking for other ways to generate profits, Grundy met with Nissan in Japan to acquire the rights to sell Datsuns in North America. Some of the Datsuns would be badged as Studebakers, and eventually, even built in Canada. But, in the middle of negotiation, management instructed Grundy to break off talks with Nissan and pursue an arrangement with Toyota. The end result was that neither company wanted to do business with Studebaker. The lawyer behind this unfortunate debacle? Future U.S. president Richard Nixon.
Grundy next looked at the Prince, a Japanese auto they could offer as low as $1,895. Also investigated was the DAF line of cars; several were brought over from Europe for testing. In the end, neither Prince nor DAF were considered viable because they wouldn’t have appealed to enough Canadian drivers. But the next car investigated, the Isuzu Bellet, certainly would have.
Drive somewhere in a Studebaker Champ and you can expect to put smiles on people’s faces. This is a truck that hits every happiness-inducing high note: It’s an old pickup, it sports quirky Jet Age styling, it’s unusual, and it’s the progeny of a beloved American independent.
But the Champ’s backstory is more of a tragedy, like the plot of that tear-jerking 1979 movie with which this truck shares its name. A great boxer, slightly past his prime, steps into the ring for one more bout, wins the fight, only to die in the end. Okay, so maybe it’s not quite as sad as Ricky Schroder bawling over a lifeless Jon Voight in The Champ, but you get the point. By the time the Champ squared off against Detroit’s commercial heavyweights, Studebaker lacked the resources to compete in this increasingly fierce arena. South Bend’s Champ was like a battery of scrappy combination punches, thrown furiously by a staggered Studebaker, that were too little too late to save the storied company.
Brooks Stevens’s Sceptre concept, designed for Studebaker. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum.
From its start as a manufacturer of horse-drawn wagons to its demise as an independent automaker competing head-to-head with Detroit’s Big Three, Studebaker enjoyed over a century of success. Opening on May 18 at the AACA Museum Inc. in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Studebaker Cool: 114 Years of Innovation narrates the history of the imaginative brand with a display of over 40 vehicles, focusing primarily on the years between 1906 and the end of automobile production in 1966.
Among the vehicles scheduled for display is a battery-electric wagon from Studebaker’s early days as a powered vehicle manufacturer. Built to carry congressmen through the tunnels connecting the Capitol to government office buildings nearby, the 1908 Studebaker Electric “Carry All” was one of two such models built for this purpose.